Howard County Times
Howard County

Haiti earthquake hits close to home

So overwhelmed was Nadege Marc after viewing news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti that she couldn't even begin to face the prospect of seeing firsthand what she calls "the circle of death."

A shadow fell over Marc's face as she described watching footage of the blanket-covered heaps of corpses on sidewalks and the mass graves of unidentified bodies.

Yet the Veterans Elementary School teacher, who organized a fundraiser among students and staff, said she expects to summon the courage to head to the Caribbean country in the not-too-distant future.

Despite having tremendous empathy for all of the quake's victims and survivors, a trip to the stricken nation isn't prompted by a "we are all brothers and sisters" philosophy on her part. Instead, Marc, one of six children, will go to aid her immediate family - her brother and sister, her mother and many nieces and nephews who all live there.

"Barely living" is a more accurate description of her family's day-to-day existence in Haiti since losing their homes in the 7.0-magnitude quake on Jan. 12, she said. Four of her many cousins were killed in the violent upheaval in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

With a death toll exceeding 222,500 by some estimates, the huge Haiti tremor ranks as the third-deadliest earthquake since 1900 on a chart compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Should the final death toll exceed the nearly 228,000 who died in Sumatra in December 2004, the Haiti quake would climb to No. 2 behind Tangshan, China, where 255,000 lives were lost in July 1976.

But equally painful is the fact that this was the first major quake to hit the hurricane-prone country in 200 years.

"Earthquake ... Haitians don't know what that is," said Marc, who was born in the Bahamas but has lifelong roots in Haiti. "Flooding they know, but they were not prepared for this."

'A trying time'
The fourth-grade teacher, who is in her second year at Veterans Elementary, offers another interpretation of the survivors' hopeful singing that has risen up from the ruins and moved many TV and Internet viewers.

"When you're a people used to being so low, then there's only one way left to go, and that's up," said Marc. The 10 million residents of the tropical country are the poorest in the Western hemisphere, according to Newsweek magazine.

Like them, Marc said she is working hard to "just see the light and not the darkness."

She is beyond grateful that a neighbor managed to pull her brother's three children from their Port-au-Prince home in the nick of time before it collapsed. And she is comforted by the knowledge that newly homeless relatives who had been sleeping at a local church were able to move in with extended family in another part of the country.

But her intense frustration at not being able to do more is only beginning to subside, she said. She spent the first several days and nights after the quake phoning her family nonstop before finally getting through two weeks later. A profound sense of helplessness set in, and she suffered a spate of panic attacks, she said, forcing her to leave school early a few times and cut back on after-hours work.

"This has been a very trying time for Nadege, as she has been faced with arranging to help her family from a distance," said the school's principal, Robert Bruce, who has offered fundraising advice and emotional support.

Marc launched a successful fundraiser at Veterans Elementary called "Dollar for Haiti," in which each of the school's 933 students were asked to give $1. The weeklong campaign, which was designed to be brief so that funds could be sent immediately, netted $3,800 - more than four times the original goal. The money was donated to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund.

"I think she underestimated the community's concern and the fact that people especially respond when one of their own has been impacted," said Bruce, praising the outpouring of response by school families and his 147-person staff.

"But she has weathered it all well, and bureaucratic setbacks haven't dimmed her desire to help Haiti," he said. "Like any good teacher working with a student, she just keeps exploring options."

Marc intends to hold a second drive at the school in March, this time for clothing and hygiene items.

"She seems really motivated," said Charles Kyler, who participated in the first school fundraiser with 9-year-old daughter Katrin, who is in Marc's math class. "She has turned her personal adversity into energy and keeps moving forward."

An eye on the future
Marc's focus now is working with her mother, Marguerite, with assistance from Catholic Charities, to provide affidavits of support to prove she has the funds to take care of her ailing 1-year-old niece and an adult guardian, allowing them both to get visas and come to Baltimore for medical care.

Marc moved to the United States when she was 7 and didn't receive her green card until she was 19, she said, so she knows what a slow-moving process lies ahead of her.

Meanwhile, she works to deal with the deep-seated emotions she feels for the earthquake's survivors.

"The pain is subsiding for them, but it will never end," said the teacher, adding that the Sept. 11 attacks also still affect her. "I hate that we begin to forget, while victims continue to hurt and grieve."

And Marc has a ready response for what she believes the next course of action should be in Haiti.

"What I would like to happen is for the government to evacuate the entire city of Port-au-Prince and send all the people to their families in the United States," she said, emphasizing that the vast majority of Haitians have relatives who have immigrated to America.

"Failure will be inevitable should the government attempt to rebuild a city that was already failing," Marc said. "To me, Haiti was already dead, and you can't revive the dead."

But placing a priority on basic needs could go a long way, she said.

"What would be doable is a plan to build homes for every family - just structures with four walls and a roof - and then they should all receive mattresses, a refrigerator and food. This would seem like a life of luxury to them.

"Beyond that, training people is the next priority - give them a skill so that they can lift themselves up," the teacher said.

Marc, who still has a quick and hearty laugh, said this tragedy has given her the gift of perspective.

"I tend to be a perfectionist, but now I realize that there are so many more important things in life," she said. "I'm experienced enough now to know that this is not forever, and tomorrow's always a new day."